Category Archives: Alexander Technique

How does the Alexander Technique work?

Research paper movement anticipation affects posture

New research has shone light onto a possible cause of some of our unhelpful postural and movement habits. Dr Rajal Cohen and her team found that simply the anticipation of making a movement caused people to put their head out of alignment with the rest of their body [1]. The research illustrates a common tendency to over-focus on the desired end result (in this instance walking towards something in order to put an object down), without sufficient awareness or interest in what we might be doing to ourselves in the process of achieving our goal. This undesirable tendency (‘end-gaining’) is something we can learn to recognise and diminish through Alexander Technique lessons.

The Alexander Technique was developed during many months and years of dedicated and careful experimentation. It was the solution to a very personal, career-threatening problem – the loss of FM Alexander’s voice. The practical, thoughtful method that Alexander discovered, allowed him to overcome the persistent hoarseness that had plagued his life as a theatre actor.

Today people take Alexander lessons for a wide range of reasons covering areas as diverse as health, sports, music and business. Because of its fundamental nature – encompassing how we react, think, move and even breathe – the Alexander Technique can be applied in any activity, allowing greater choice, freedom and ease in everyday life.

Clinical trials have demonstrated that one-to-one Alexander lessons with STAT-registered teachers can lead to long-term reduction in persistent back and neck pain, as well as enabling people with Parkinson’s to minimise the effects of their condition on their daily lives. The Alexander Technique has been taught for many years in music and drama colleges, enabling students to improve their performance, and avoid anxiety and injury. It is now being taught in some schools to help children to ‘learn how to learn’, and Alexander lessons are also increasingly being taken up in business and in sports.

So how can one approach be applied across such diverse fields? How does the Alexander Technique actually work? FM Alexander first developed the method (the practice) and later sought to understand and explain the theory behind it. He was clearly ahead of his time, being one of the first in the Western world to recognise that mind and body are inseparable – this concept is beginning to be more widely accepted in our stubbornly dualistic world, but mostly we don’t get beyond simply acknowledging that there is some kind of link between mind and body. Alexander also recognised that the way we do everything that we do in life (our ‘use’) profoundly affects our long-term functioning – something that biomechanist, Katy Bowman eloquently writes about today. And Alexander’s method relies on our potential for fundamental change – and this potential has been borne out in more recent decades by neuroscience’s recognition of brain plasticity. Research by Tim Cacciatore and colleagues has demonstrated that training in the Alexander Technique leads to improved postural and overall muscle tone, movement coordination, flexibility and balance.

The latest research by Dr Cohen’s team is very welcome as it clearly supports Alexander’s belief that mind and body are indeed inseparable. The study found that just the thought of moving caused an anticipatory negative effect on posture. Furthermore this effect was more pronounced in those participants who were found to be least able to consciously prevent themselves from reacting to a test stimulus; and it was also worse in those who generally tended to be less ‘present’ (mindful).

Learning the Alexander Technique involves developing greater self-awareness and more conscious choice over how we respond in any situation. This skill of conscious (intentional) inhibition enables us to prevent unwanted habits, and thereby to access our inherent movement coordination, balance and posture that would otherwise tend to be hampered by such habits. Alexander work helps us remain more present and embodied. It enables us to avoid the tendency described in Dr Cohen’s research of continually ‘jumping ahead of ourselves and living in the future’.

Reference

1. Baer JL, Vasavada A, Cohen RG. Neck posture is influenced by anticipation of stepping. Human Movement Science 2019;64:108–122.

With the best of intention

Dart hitting the bullseyeSo what is the Alexander Technique all about? I sometimes like to describe it as awareness, intention and balance. In previous posts I described how learning and applying the technique enables us to develop greater self-awareness and come into a better state of balance (physical & mental). Today I’m considering the key role of intention.
It’s about being clear what you want and what you don’t want. So for example, I may want to get that pot of jam from the high kitchen shelf but I’m also clear that I’d rather not pull myself off balance, and so have to over-tense all my muscles, as I reach up for it.
One of the key skills we learn in Alexander lessons is to prioritise ‘looking after ourselves’ over and above the urge to simply attain the goal. The goal in question could be as mundane as getting a pot of jam, or as significant as deciding what career to embark on next. ‘Looking after ourselves’ encompasses a desire not to rush to just grab at the goal – this is an ingrained habit for the vast majority of us (in industrialised countries at least). Amongst other things it involves unnecessarily compressing the spine and joints as we physically or metaphorically reach out to grasp what we want. Through the experience gained in Alexander lessons, we become aware of this tendency. We begin to notice how we’re constantly and unintentionally mucking ourselves up by narrowing in our attention on the desired goal – interfering with the natural rhythm of our breathing, muscular tone and balance, as well as the clarity of our thinking. We gradually learn to pay more attention to how we carry out our daily activities, rather than just focussing unthinkingly on the goal of each activity itself.
This is one of the basic principles of the Alexander Technique, namely to prioritise the means of attaining a goal, rather than fixating on the goal itself. Occasionally this principle is misunderstood to imply that we shouldn’t have goals, or that our goals are unimportant. Having clear goals is, of course, essential; it’s simply a question of how we achieve them and, if we’re not careful, at what cost. Paradoxically, by learning to confer greater importance on looking after ourselves than on just trying to achieve the immediate goal, we will be more effective and are more likely to succeed than if we only focus on the desired end result.
Considering a simple example such as throwing a dart makes this last point clear. If all your attention is focused on achieving the highest score, you’re likely to be less mindful of how you prepare for the action and how you then throw the dart. Furthermore, it’s very difficult to stay present if your mind is on the score you want to get (in the future), or on what happened in your last experience of throwing a dart (in the past). In contrast, providing you are clear what your overall target/intention is, you can then allow yourself to stay sufficiently present to stop holding your breath, stop scrunching yourself up so much, and bring yourself into balance – and that’s not a bad starting point for any activity. The rest can then take care of itself. We’ve all heard of athletes doing incredible feats when they’re ‘in the zone’, and the same principle applies to how well-coordinated we are when we throw a dart or just walk down the road.
Another source of potential misunderstanding is thinking that this Alexander focus on the how, i.e the process, means that we need to try and work out exactly how to carry out the action in question. Consider any action – let’s take the example of throwing a dart again – and bear in mind that we have more than 600 muscles in our body. It’s immediately obvious that we cannot consciously work out exactly which parts of us need to be doing what at any given moment. The bio-mechanics required for almost any action are way beyond the ability of our conscious mind to determine. And yet in the mainstream, we’re bombarded by endless streams of advice on ‘the required grip for the dart’, the ‘desired position of your head’ in golf, what to do with your so-called ‘core muscles’ in Pilates etc. Unfortunately, when we try to work out at this level of detail what actually needs to happen, we’ll simply end up trying to micro-manage ourselves. This internal focus of attention leads to excessive muscular tension as we fruitlessly dictate what different ‘parts’ of ourselves need to do.
The point is that we already know how to coordinate ourselves well to carry out an immense range of intricate movements and actions. It’s the way we moved when we were 2–3 year-olds. But we ‘know it’ with our subconscious minds and bodies, and this knowledge has become buried under many years of habit. Putting into practice the Alexander Technique involves being clear in our intention, and using self-awareness to help ourselves prevent the habits that would otherwise interfere. Reducing the habitual interferences allows our inherent ‘blueprint’ or ‘template’ of coordination and balance to begin to re-emerge with its characteristic poise, ease and freedom of movement.
So, the Alexander Technique helps us be clear what our overall intention is, to create the best conditions we can in ourselves, and to make sure we’re getting all the information we need to be able to achieve the goal (keeping the eye on the ball etc). This approach is backed up by sports science research which has demonstrated that an external focus of attention for the action is required for best results [Wulf, 2007]. Applying the Alexander Technique does encompass an internal focus of attention as well, but this is aimed at reducing what we don’t want i.e. not interfering by letting our usual habits creep in. Crucially, we aspire to developing an expansive awareness that encompasses both the external (the surrounding environment) and the internal (our mind/body) into one integrated whole.
In the examples above I’ve used activities that might commonly be described as largely ‘physical’ (reaching for a pot, or throwing a dart) but exactly the same principles apply for anything, whether a physical action, a train of thought, or a life goal. Whatever the aim, we need to be clear what is our overall intention and not just to fixate on an immediate outcome. As an analogy, if you’re sailing across a lake to get to a point on the other side, you won’t get far if you simply strive hard to go directly to that point. Instead, as long as you know the overall destination you’re heading for, if you pay attention to the general conditions of wind and weather, you’ll be able to navigate the best route with all its twists and turns, and get to where you want to go.
Summing up, we’d like a clear intention of what we want, a friendly monitoring of our ingrained tendency to muck ourselves up, and a resolute decision to not just slip into habit but stick with our intention and then to allow it all to happen.

Reference
Wulf G. Attention and motor skill learning. Human Kinetics, USA 2007.

When less is most definitely more

Skeleton brushing teethDo you get mouth ulcers? Apparently, 2–10% of the population suffer from frequent mouth ulcers with no obvious cause [1]. If you often have mouth ulcers, you may well have tried treating them with different gels or creams. If that’s the case, have you ever considered if there might be a different way of addressing the problem? Whether there might be something that you could stop doing, something to take away, rather than the usual approach of adding a treatment, or working out what you need to do?

Of course, there are many different reasons for getting mouth ulcers [2] but it now seems that one factor could be toothpaste, or rather the sodium lauryl sulphate that is an ingredient of most toothpastes. Using such toothpastes might be causing mouth ulcers in some people and/or making their ulcers last longer and be more painful [3–5]. So if you frequently have mouth ulcers it might be worth finding out if they improve if you stop putting sodium lauryl sulphate in your mouth (several brands of toothpaste are available that don’t contain this ingredient).

What a lovely commonsense solution – to stop doing the thing that might be causing or exacerbating the problem. A logical solution yes, but it does fly in the face of our usual approach. Because, in general, we try to work out what we need to do to try and solve a problem, rather than asking what we could stop doing. Wouldn’t it be great if we could use this approach of simply taking something away to tackle other problems in life?

Well the good news is that just stopping what we usually do can be a highly effective approach for a great many of the issues we face. Whenever the problem is caused by, or aggravated by, the way in which we do things – and we do most things in an habitual fashion – then reducing or stopping that habit is likely to be beneficial. This is the basis of the Alexander Technique, asking the question, what might I be doing now that could be causing or contributing to this problem? And then using the technique to prevent or reduce the habit.

One example is back pain. For the majority of people with back pain there is no underlying medical condition, so a visit to the GP is usually followed by a diagnosis of ‘simple’ or ‘non-specific back pain’. The GP’s diagnostic process is essential in order to be able to rule out any more serious underlying medical issues. But when there is no obvious medical cause, doctors can struggle to identify the root cause of the problem. However, the good news is that GPs and other healthcare professionals are increasingly realising the pivotal impact of the way in which we lead our lives on our overall health (and not just in the obvious examples of diet and ‘lifestyle’).

US biomechanist, Katy Bowman [6] has comprehensively researched and written about the huge impact on our long-term state of health and functioning, of the way in which we move about while carrying out our everyday activities. It’s something that FM Alexander worked out more than a hundred years ago when he developed his technique in order to resolve his voice problems. It’s only more recently, however, that insights from research in biomechanics, neuroscience and clinical trials validate what Alexander discovered for himself over many years of experimentation and observation.

Back pain is the most common reason that people begin Alexander lessons [7]. And what do people learn in these lessons? They learn how to become more aware of their habitual ways of standing/sitting/walking/carrying/texting etc, and how these ways of doing things tend to put unnecessary strain on their back and joints. Through gaining an experience of doing things differently in a lesson, they discover how they can reduce or stop these habitual interferences with their natural movement coordination and balance.

Of course we didn’t start out in life with these habits but we developed them as (usually) subconscious strategies in adapting ourselves to our environments and largely sedentary lifestyles. Watch most 2–3 year-old children and you’ll see fluid, effortless movement and easy balance. That’s because nearly everyone is born with the potential for good movement coordination, balance and postural support. However, this inherent capacity becomes ‘buried’ under accumulated years of habitual responses. If we can learn how to prevent or reduce the habits that are getting in the way, we’ll tend to regain some of that natural poise and ease of movement. So if our back pain is caused by, or aggravated by, an overall tendency to contract in any movement or in just sitting or standing, then as we gradually reduce the strain on our spine, muscles and other tissues, our back problem has more of a chance to resolve itself.

Two large randomised controlled trials have demonstrated that one-to-one Alexander Technique lessons from STAT-registered teachers are effective, long-term solutions for the pain and disability associated with persistent back or neck pain [8,9].

So the next time you are faced with a problem, just take a moment to consider whether ‘just doing something’ is really the most effective approach. Or whether it’s time to find yourself an Alexander teacher to discover the truly groundbreaking and challenging skill of not just reacting like we usually do!

 

  1. Altenburg A, et al. The treatment of chronic recurrent oral aphthous ulcers. Deutsches Arzteblatt International 2014;111:665–73. doi: 10.3238/arztebl.2014.0665.
  2. NICE recommends that if you keep getting mouth ulcers, do mention it next time you see your GP, and to be aware that you should see your doctor without delay if you ever have a single ulcer that lasts for more than 3 weeks (just in case it’s malignant) https://cks.nice.org.uk/aphthous-ulcer#!topicsummary.
  3. Herlofson BB and Barkvoll P. The effect of two toothpaste detergents on the frequency of recurrent aphthous ulcers. Acta Odontol Scand1996;54:150–3.
  4. Chahine L, et al. The effect of sodium lauryl sulfate on recurrent aphthous ulcers: a clinical study. Compend Contin Educ Dent 1997;18:1238–40.
  5. Shim Y, et al. Effect of sodium lauryl sulfate on recurrent aphthous stomatitis: a randomized controlled clinical trial. Oral Diseases 2012;18:655–660.
  6. Bowman K. Move your DNA. 2017. Propriometrics Press.
  7. Eldred J, Hopton A, Donnison E, Woodman J, MacPherson H. Teachers of the Alexander Technique in the UK and the people who take their lessons: A national cross-sectional survey. Complementary Therapies in Medicine 2015;23:451–461.
  8. Little P, Lewith G, Webley F, et al. Randomised controlled trial of Alexander Technique lessons, exercise and massage (ATEAM) for chronic and recurrent back pain. British Medical Journal 2008;337:a884.
  9. MacPherson H, Tilbrook H, Richmond S, Woodman J, Ballard K, et al. Alexander Technique lessons or acupuncture sessions for persons with chronic neck pain: A randomized trial. Annals of Internal Medicine 2015;163:653–62.

Self-aware but not self-critical

Leopard almost asleep yet alertIt’s not hard to imagine that this sleepy leopard could be up and moving in a flash if an unwitting young antelope happened to wander past. Even when totally relaxed, the leopard is alert and ready for action. A few hundred years ago most humans would probably have shared this same ability to remain aware of what is going on all around them and, just like the leopard, be quietly and calmly ‘ready for action’.

Our current world is full of mobiles, tablets and laptops and these tend to narrow in our focus, rendering us less aware of what is around us. We’ve all either been or seen someone who is so intent on their mobile that they collide with something when walking down the street; and it’s easy to spend a whole bus journey completely oblivious to everything and everyone around us. What’s more, we’re usually in a constant state of doing, or readiness for doing, as we dash about our busy lives. This tendency to hyperactivity and focused concentration makes it even harder to ever return to ‘neutral’ – a state of quiet contemplation.

In a previous post I talked about how awareness, intention and balance are, for me, the bedrock of the Alexander Technique. Having already explored the role that balance (in all its senses) plays in our lives, this month I’m taking a look at awareness and the particular kind of self-awareness that we develop through learning the Alexander Technique.

The awareness we gradually develop through Alexander lessons is largely an appreciation of ourselves in relation to our environment. Rather than our attention being focused at any one time on either the external or the internal, we take in both at once. I like to call this ‘expansive awareness’ whereby we bring together into an integrated whole, our sense of our physical self, our thinking self and the information coming in on what’s around us.

So, we are able to see with a real depth of vision rather than over-focusing on what we are directly looking at. Again, if you think of the leopard, it is able to pay close attention to something, without losing this wider awareness.[i] Similarly, we can appreciate the rich three-dimensionality of our field of hearing. During our Alexander journey we also begin to notice more and more how we have a tendency to over-tense and hold ourselves – and we learn how to use the Technique to reduce this. We also gain a better appreciation of one of our most important senses which is proprioception – the sense of where we are in space and how different parts of ourselves relate to each other spatially, including the sense of our movement. Although proprioception is largely ignored (it doesn’t even feature in the commonplace description of having ‘five senses’), without it we would be unable to do virtually anything in life.

It’s not just our physical selves that we become more aware of – I used to have very little sense of my body as I was such a ‘live-in-the-head’ person. Yet, at the same time I think I also had little awareness of the habitual nature of much of my thinking. Through the Alexander Technique I’ve gradually reduced the amount of the ‘I must / I should / I need to’ type of thoughts, as well as all the ‘what if…’ thoughts. As we begin to reduce the physical tension and mental chatter, we will feel calmer and more in control. So over time, as we develop our skills in applying the Alexander Technique, we become more and more conscious of the information that all our senses are gathering about ourselves and what is around us, as well as what we are thinking, and all this leads to a greater sense of embodiment.

One last thought – I’d like to make a clear distinction between self-awareness and self-criticism (in the sense of being judgemental). As our awareness of ourselves increases through the Alexander Technique, our habits (both physical and thinking) come more to the foreground of our attention. It can come as a bit of a surprise to find that we’ve spent most of our lives up to this point blissfully unaware that that way we are sitting, standing, texting etc is not that well-coordinated, nor are we in balance and so we’re tensing to hold ourselves up. As a result of this realisation, thoughts like ’I’m doing it all wrong’ or ‘oh no, I’m tensing up again’ are not infrequent reactions. Thankfully it soon becomes clear that such self-critical thoughts are counter-productive. No-one is ever going to be perfect, so striving for perfection or ‘being right’ is not achievable – nor indeed is it desirable – and in trying hard to get it right we will only encourage our existing tendency to tense up. Rather, a curiosity about ourselves and a non-judgemental interest in any unhelpful habits are catalysts for change.

So we don’t want to encourage self-criticism or self-obsession, just greater awareness of what we’re doing with ourselves as we go about our daily lives. Implicit in an awareness of an unwanted habit is a desire for change. Forming a clear intention to stop or reduce the habit is the most important step in bringing about change in a positive direction. And we’ll come back another time to intention – the third member in our Alexander triumvirate of awareness, intention and balance.

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[i] If you’re interested in reading more about this see Iain McGilchrist’s work where he describes how, for example a bird is able to pay close attention to the ground so that it can peck out the seeds from the grit, while at the same time remaining aware of what is around it to stay safe from predators. Humans seem to be gradually losing this ability and McGilchrist puts this down to the shifting relationship over the last few hundred years between the left and right hemispheres of our brain.

‘Core strength and stability’?…but we’re vertebrates!

Skeleton doing plankYou won’t find many Alexander Technique teachers talking about ‘core stability’ or ‘core strength’. This is the notion that a core group of abdominal muscles exists that can be strengthened through specific exercises to provide us with better posture and a ‘strong and stable back’ 😉. The idea arose in the late 1990s and seems to have found a place in mainstream thinking. This place, however, is not deserved as researchers and health practitioners from a range of different disciplines now believe that ‘core stability’ is something of a myth (see the links at the end of this post).

For sure, so-called ‘core strength’ exercises can help you look more ‘streamlined’ if that is what you want, but there is very little evidence to support the idea that targeted ‘core strength and stability’ exercises are particularly good for back pain, or for our general health and well-being. Instead, the focus on bracing and pulling in the stomach may make things worse – encouraging us to hold even more muscular tension and placing destabilising forces on the spine.

It is now well accepted that it’s actually exercise in general and everyday activity that helps people recover from and prevent back pain. Of course, Pilates or yoga can be a great help here; just be aware that in a well-taught class you are unlikely to find a focus on ‘core’ or other specific muscles. There is also good evidence that Alexander Technique lessons are an effective approach for long-term resolution of back pain.

From an Alexander Technique perspective, we are intricate, finely tuned beings that work best when we allow ourselves to function as an integrated mind-body whole. We are also a lot stronger when we use ourselves as an interconnected whole rather than as if we consist of ‘separate parts’, which is a common concept of ourselves. So here’s one example – if I want to push open a heavy door and my underlying, largely subconscious, concept of strength is that it’s my arms that do all the pushing, then I’m going to find it harder work than if I simply put my arms out and use my body weight to send the door out of the way as I walk through it. In an Alexander lesson, we become aware of the countless ways in which we tend to make life harder for ourselves through our habitual ways of doing things. We also discover how everything is a lot less effort when we are shown how we can allow ourselves to work in a more integrated, coordinated and balanced way.

Humans are vertebrates, just like dogs and horses, and so at the physical core of our whole being you’ll find our spine and skull. Alexander teachers are interested in how well a person is working as a whole, and the head / neck / back dynamic relationship is a good indicator of this. Our head and spine constitute our central coordinating axis – and it was FM Alexander who discovered that, in this respect, we’re just like other vertebrates. Think of a deer or cheetah running and you’ll see a beautifully poised head leading the movement and the body seems to just flow along behind. Even though we are on two feet rather than four, the same principle applies. Most of us start out with pretty efficient, well-coordinated movement (think of the free, easy movement and balance of most 2–3 year-olds). However, we tend to lose some of this coordination and balance as we gradually adapt ourselves to our environment, which is usually a largely sedentary world of chairs, tables and computers. We tend to get stuck in habitual ways of doing things, including over-use of our arms and legs, which compromises the natural length and springiness of the spine.

The ideal situation is that all our muscles are doing the appropriate amount of work required for any given task at any given time, so we need to be able to continually adapt according to what we’re doing. In general, however, our muscles tend to be doing too much work, as holding tension is a very common habit. In contrast, the system of deep muscles associated mostly with the spine and head that provide us with postural support is usually in need of a bit of waking up. It’s all a matter of balance and, with such a complex system, there’s no way we can directly bring that balance about through any specific exercises. Alexander lessons provide a practical and effective approach to this problem. Through learning greater self-awareness and from direct experience of guided movement we can re-discover the central coordinating role of our ‘true core’, the healthy dynamic relationship between our head and spine. When this is working better, we’re more able to let go of unwanted muscular tension and discover easier, freer movement.

So, if you’re a vertebrate and would like to discover how you can access your ‘true core strength and stability’, find yourself a registered Alexander Technique teacher – feel free to get in touch if you’re in the Edinburgh / East Lothian area or search find your local teacher here.

Read more about the myth of core stability:

Eyal Lederman: http://www.cpdo.net/Lederman_The_myth_of_core_stability.pdf

Peter O’Sullivan: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YezBG_NdLgs&feature=player_embedded

Emma Wightman: http://www.stockbridgeosteopathicpractice.com/the-myth-of-core-stability-part-1.html

https://trustme-ed.com/blog/the-problem-with-core-stability

Prevention is better than cure

Alexander Technique as health and safetyIs it just me, or do you find when looking for car insurance that none of the categories in the online drop-down employment list accurately describe your job? Not surprisingly the category I wanted (‘Alexander Technique teacher’) didn’t exist, but none of the available options seemed even remotely relevant to what I do. When I came across the category of ‘health and safety consultant’ I immediately thought of someone on a building site wearing one of those bright yellow hard hats. But then it dawned on me that ‘health and safety consultant’ is actually quite a good description of our work as Alexander teachers – helping people to look after their health and wellbeing, and prevent injuries and accidents in everyday life.

In a previous post I talked about how I use the Alexander Technique to help keep me safe day-to-day. Here I’ll say a few things about how learning the Alexander Technique can benefit our long-term health.

Although I’ll never be able to prove it, I am convinced that I’d be in a bit of a state by now if 20 years ago I hadn’t decided to take up the Alexander Technique. I do know that at that time I had daily low-level neck ache and the beginnings of RSI linked to extensive computer use and, more worryingly, I had a family history of severe neck and back problems. When I decided to begin Alexander lessons I was seeing it as my attempt at an ‘insurance policy’ for my future heath. It’s very clear to me now that the Alexander Technique is essentially preventative in nature – promoting health in its broadest sense, rather than treating specific issues. At that time, however, I didn’t know much about it and I don’t even remember how I first heard about it – all I remember is that I was scared that I might end up with similar problems to my mum and brother and was willing to try anything that might help me protect my long-term health.

So how can learning and applying the Alexander Technique impact on our health over a lifetime? Anyone who has had a reasonable number of Alexander lessons will be very aware of, and enjoy, how differently they move, sit, stand and even breathe, compared with their previous habitual ways of being and doing. They’re also likely to notice a tendency towards a calmer, more open, and more self-confident attitude to life. Our current physical and mental state is a reflection of the cumulative conditions of our existence/experience leading up to this point. So it’s easy to see that if, for example, we learn to move more effortlessly with less stress and strain on our back, neck and joints, that this might have beneficial consequences over the long term in terms of flexibility, aches & pains and so-called ‘wear and tear’ conditions such as osteoarthritis. One of the more subtle and intangible benefits, however, is the greater understanding and acceptance of oneself that comes from taking on board the Technique. This is accompanied by a growing sense of oneself as a whole, rather than having a concept of ‘self’ as essentially being the mind, which is then carried around by a separate (and not always trustworthy) body.

One evening last week I found my right knee suddenly really jarred when I was going upstairs. I immediately stopped and considered the situation – was it something I’d done in that moment of climbing the stairs? And/or, had I slightly twisted and injured my knee without realising it when I’d been clambering over the rocks at Joppa beach earlier that day? Not knowing the answer to these questions, and certainly not wanting to make the situation worse, I was left with the fact that all I could usefully do in that moment was to apply my usual Alexander thinking and see what happened. So I gave myself a few seconds to bring my awareness back to myself, noticing my contact with the supporting surface of the step beneath me and thinking of the direction upwards, all the way up my spine through the top of my head up towards the ceiling, and the idea of my knees going ‘forwards and away’ (‘classic’ Alexander thoughts – or directions as we like to call them). I reminded myself that I was likely to automatically anticipate another experience of pain with my next step, and so invited myself to put such thoughts aside. Then, mindfully, I took another step – wow, no pain at all, my knee was fine!

We have three flights of stairs in our house so as I gradually continued up towards the top, I had plenty of time to find out what effect my thinking was having. Half way up, my mind wandered onto something else and then suddenly ‘Ouch’ again! So, giving myself a moment to renew my Alexander directions, I set off again and was fine all the way up to the top floor. In the course of that evening I found that each time I went up or down the stairs, or crouched down to pick something up I had no knee pain – but only as long as I remembered to think my Alexander directions; otherwise, each time that I didn’t stay ‘present’, it hurt!

I don’t always have such a clear-cut experience of the power of thought – Alexander-informed thought. It’s usually much more subtle e.g. walking might seem to become slightly easier and smoother when I change my thinking. But it did make me realise how important is the way we respond in that first moment of something going wrong. Our response can significantly influence the longer-term outcome, either aiding a speedy recovery or (unintentionally) predisposing to a worsening of the situation.

Now of course pain is a very useful immediate reaction whenever we encounter anything that is harmful. It’s how from a young age we learn to protect ourselves by knowing what to avoid etc. But a pain response can sometimes become entrenched unnecessarily. An experience of pain makes us anticipate pain again whenever we repeat the same action/are in the same situation. However, pain anticipation results in a whole-body/self response that includes tightening up and this in itself makes it more likely that pain will recur. So we can get stuck in a vicious circle of pain which can become persistent and remain long after any original tissue damage has healed up. There is now a lot of research on persistent (chronic) pain and ‘brain plasticity’, and one helpful and accessible insight into this is Steve Haine’s booklet, Pain is really strange.

My experience of knee pain that day led me back to memories of times prior to learning the Alexander Technique and the way I would react whenever anything went awry. Typically, any experience of unexpected pain or discomfort would unleash a stream of ‘what if’ thinking – for example ‘is this the start of osteoarthritis?’. But now, using the practical thinking skills I’ve learnt, together with a more accepting and curious attitude to the current situation, I was able to work through the present problem. I presumably had some kind of minor injury but preventing my reactions from making it any worse allowed my natural self-healing capacities to do their stuff. After a couple of days I didn’t even have any twinges in my knee.

Of course I can’t ever know for sure if my Alexander thinking had any role in preventing a minor injury potentially turning into something more serious or long-term – but I’ve had enough similar experiences over the years that I’m convinced that the Alexander Technique has had a major impact on protecting my health for the long-term. And of course there are now several clinical trials that back up my own personal experience, with evidence of how learning and applying the Alexander Technique can impact on some long-term health conditions.

If you’d like to find out more about how you can use the Alexander Technique to help protect your long-term health do get in touch if you live in or around Edinburgh, or look for events or teachers in your area.

The answer to life, the universe and everything

Balance through the Alexander TechniqueIn the Hitchhiker’s guide to the galaxy, Douglas Adams’ famously cited the answer to life, the universe and everything as ‘42’. Looking at this ‘ultimate question’ from the perspective of an Alexander Technique teacher, I’d suggest that a more helpful and plausible answer might be ‘balance’.

Whether it’s life balance, balance in movement, or emotional balance – balance is something most of us aspire to. Perhaps surprisingly, even in such everyday activities as sitting or standing, we do not readily or regularly achieve a state of physical balance. Balance is a dynamic process and habits such as locking knees and other joints will interfere with this, as any rigidity prevents the natural and very subtle postural sway. Our physical balance is also affected by our tendency to ‘live in the future’ rather than being in the present moment, with our minds one step ahead of our bodily selves. For example, while I’m reaching out for something, my mind tends to already be onto the next action – thinking what I’m going to be doing with the object I’m just about to take hold of. The result can be that I very readily pull myself slightly off balance in reaching out, rather than allowing myself to take that necessary extra step closer. Unless we are in balance, we have to over-use muscles in order to stay upright and in position. So frequently being slightly off balance is one source of excess muscular tension.

In Alexander Technique lessons, people learn how to come into a state of balance and how to maintain this while moving, standing, sitting etc – they’re often surprised by the experience of ease and pleasure that this brings. They also learn how to use awareness and intention to carry this through into the rest of their daily lives – discovering how to find better balance in everyday activities, reducing the habitual tension patterns that are no longer needed to ‘hold themselves up’.

Equally as desirable as ‘physical’ balance is ‘mental’ or ‘emotional’ balance. When we’re in a state of equilibrium we feel more able to deal with the world and calmly consider different options or perspectives, without jumping to a decision or viewpoint based solely on preconceived ideas or simple habit. When we practise Alexander thinking we can find a better ‘mental / emotional’ balance. Rather than just reacting immediately in a ‘knee-jerk’ habitual way, we learn to give ourselves more space and time in which we can choose whether and how to respond to what life throws at us. And in that brief moment of non-responding, as we bring our awareness to ourselves and form a clear intention of what we do and don’t want, everything has a chance to organise and we come into a better state of physical balance. And vice versa – so if, for example, I’m nicely balanced on my sitting bones on the chair while typing this, I’m going to feel a bit calmer than I would if I were hunched over my computer. So, from an Alexander perspective, we’re not composed of separate physical and mental entities but as one mind-body self. A better sense of ourselves as embodied beings leaves us better placed to tackle life’s ‘ups and downs’.

We’re encouraged by our culture to look for certainty and absolutes (‘work as hard as you can’ rather than ‘do a good job and go home at a reasonable time’; ‘be the fastest’ rather than just ‘enjoy your run’; ‘make sure you make the right choice’ rather than ‘weigh it all up and go with what seems the best option’ etc). However, very little in life is black and white, and extremes in any aspect of life are generally not desirable. We sometimes set ourselves unrealistic goals and then give up disheartened when we don’t immediately achieve the desired outcome.

As we begin to apply the Alexander Technique in our daily lives we become more aware of the physical and thinking habits that tend to pull us off balance, and we learn how to reduce this interference. We also discover that when our intention is clear, we are more able to focus on the desired direction of travel and to fixate less on wanting immediate results.

It’s not about trying to achieve some state of perfect balance in all things and at all times, but rather, by using the Alexander Technique we can continue to find a better balance in our lives. In a nutshell, the Alexander Technique is about awareness, intention and balance. Greater awareness of ourselves, together with clear intention, tend to lead to better balance (in all senses of the word) both in the moment and for the long term.

 

Learning how to learn

Alexander Technique helps you balanceMy first experience of sitting on a horse was when I was in my twenties and it ended with me gradually sliding off sideways on to the ground when the horse suddenly broke into a trot. My second experience was a few years’ later and was slightly different – this horse decided to throw me over its head into the mud once it realised that I didn’t have a clue what I was doing.

Fast forward a decade to near the beginning of my training to be an Alexander Technique teacher. As part of the course we were to visit the local riding school once a year. There we found gentle, sedate horses but, despite their slow pace, my previous experiences had left me somewhat apprehensive – not least because now we were to have no stirrups, nor reins to hold on to. I survived but it wasn’t a particularly enjoyable experience, particularly when we were asked to keep our eyes closed and arms raised out to the sides, even while the horse was turning around in the yard. However, when we returned a year later I realised how much progress I must have made in my Alexander training, as this time I found myself feeling much more confident and at ease. Clearly my balance had improved through the training and I was more able to just go with the experience, using my Alexander thinking skills to prevent me slipping into my old habits of panicking and tensing up.

A couple of weeks ago I was fortunate to be able to spend a morning with Alexander teacher and rider, Chrissy Pritchard at her beautiful place in Lanarkshire. Chrissy had offered her colleagues the opportunity of having a go at riding her highland pony. For me this would be the fifth time in my life when I had tried riding but my colleagues’ previous experience ranged from none at all to having ridden as a teenager. What impressed me was that, regardless of previous experience, we were all able to ride quite well after just a few words of instruction from Chrissy. This lovely morning reminded me that learning the Alexander Technique actually teaches us how to learn.

So how does the Alexander Technique help us learn? When learning a new skill the tendency is to fixate on the thing that we want to achieve, the goal, leaving little thinking space for what’s the best way of getting there. What the Alexander Technique enables us to do is to pay attention to the bigger picture, so that we can create the best conditions possible for achieving that goal (being in balance and poised, moving in a well-coordinated way etc). Here’s a glimpse of what the process was for me:

As always, there were my previous experiences in the back of my mind – not just of being on a horse but all those times I’ve been confronted with something new and ‘tried to get it right’. By acknowledging these thoughts but choosing not to react to them by ‘getting prepared’ (which usually involves tensing up and over-focusing on the outcome) I was able to stay more in the present rather than dwelling in the future or in the past. As I got onto the pony I took a moment to be aware of myself, the pony and our surroundings and then thought of the crown of my head leading the way upwards (rather than pressing down heavily on my foot in the stirrup). Then I was finding my balance on my sitting bones and continually coming back to an awareness of my sitting bones and the rest of me, as well as what was around me. Holding the reins as Chrissy showed me I aimed to notice if I started to grip at any point. Similarly, I paid attention to any tendency to grip the pony with my legs, wishing instead to let my legs hang suspended freely, with my weight dropping straight down through my sitting bones, while maintaining a good contact with the pony. At one point Chrissy suggested that I subtly shift my weight on the saddle and as I did this I noticed I came into a better balance and that the pony responded positively to this. Then setting off with a gentle nudge with my legs and a ‘walk on’.

One of the things that we get better at through the Alexander Technique is being clearer in our intention and less distracted by other stimuli. So, getting the pony to go in the direction we want is helped by looking ahead in the direction of travel and allowing our intention to come through ourselves to the pony – if I’m thinking of turning right, and as long I don’t allow my habits to interfere by tensing up, then my weight will tend to subtly shift with my intention, more onto my right sitting bone and the pony will get the message. So, applying the Alexander Technique involves self-awareness and making conscious choices over how we’d like to respond (think/move/act). Seeing to what extent we’re able to stick to those choices rather than just reverting back into habit is all part of the learning process and an interest in that process helps us not to over-focus on the particular goal in question.

Pony riding with Alexander Technique

Through our Alexander experience we just needed a few simple instructions from Chrissy, and we were all able to learn the basics of horse riding in just a few minutes. Obviously if we wanted to become expert horse riders, like anyone, we would need to practice the specific skills involved but we would have the benefit of the Technique to help us get to whatever level of riding expertise we wanted.

Thankfully, the Alexander Technique is being taught more and more in schools and colleges but people of all ages want to learn new skills during their lives – the Alexander Technique gives us the best approach to learning, and can be applied to anything.

The Alexander Technique keeps me safe

Stay safe with the Alexander TechniqueThis past month I’ve spent a lot of time driving up and down between Edinburgh and Bristol due to family illness. During this time I often found myself thinking ‘thank goodness for the Alexander Technique, I’m so lucky to have this skill!” – I was able to stay calm, aware and focused throughout, even when I’d had very little sleep and the road conditions were awful.

There have been countless times in my everyday life – for example, picking up something heavy, climbing a ladder, walking on uneven ground – when I’ve used the Alexander Technique to help me stay safe. How does this work? – by becoming more aware of oneself and what is happening moment by moment, and being able to give oneself a little bit of space and time in which to consider how best to respond in any given situation. So, for example, if I’m climbing up a ladder to wash the windows I’m very aware of my changing balance with each step – not trying to control or micro-manage, just staying present and paying attention to what I’m doing with myself rather than solely focusing on cleaning the windows. So if, for example, a rung is slippery I’m more likely to be able to adapt and stay in balance and so stay safe.

Less obvious perhaps but equally as important, is how learning the Alexander Technique is helpful for safety in its broader sense, particularly over the long term. So it’s not just about in-the-moment avoidance of accidents or strain – I’ve also protected my long-term health and well-being through the Technique. I’m convinced that without it I’d be a bit of a wreck now with neck pain and RSI – I was beginning to get signs of these developing before I started Alexander lessons. Through the lessons and my subsequent training to be an Alexander teacher, I’ve integrated the Technique into my daily life for better balance, movement coordination and mindful calm.

I’ve discovered even I can enjoy running!

Alexander Technique RunningOne of my most hated aspects of school was being made to run all the way around the athletic track. As an unfit, poorly coordinated and totally non-sporty teenager, I really struggled and quickly reverted to walking – only to be shouted at by an unsympathetic teacher to ‘get running’ again. From then on I’ve never run, apart from for an occasional bus.

Since coming to the Alexander Technique my attitude to physical activity has gradually shifted, as my balance and coordination have improved. I began enjoying trying out different activities – happy that I didn’t need to ‘try and get it right’ but instead just playing with my Alexander thinking and enjoying having a go, safe in the knowledge that I now knew how to look after myself better in any activity. My latest venture is paddle boarding, which I’ve found can be harder than it looks on the sea off Portobello beach.

Despite my new-found enthusiasm for trying out ‘sporty type’ activities, my long-standing hatred of running remained…until a couple of weeks ago when I was introduced to some new ideas. Malcolm Balk, Alexander teacher, running coach and author was coming over from Canada to give a workshop in Edinburgh and I decided it was too good an opportunity to miss. So I got in touch to ask if he would consider giving a second running workshop for Alexander teachers – not least to help us better tailor our Alexander teaching for our clients who run.

On a gloriously sunny Edinburgh day, I gathered with eight of my Alexander teacher colleagues for a morning’s workshop with Malcolm. After some warm-up exercises, he filmed each of us in turn as we ran a short distance. We then decamped back to base to view the results. How enlightening being able to clearly see one’s habits all played out in slow motion! Perhaps not surprisingly, as Alexander Technique teachers we all ‘passed the first test’ being pretty good at looking after our head/neck/back relationship, so we weren’t introducing a whole load of unnecessary tension in our necks (phew). But we were all doing various extraneous things not conducive to easy running – what on earth was I doing with my arms, did I need to be moving them quite as much as I was? We all had our own individual idiosyncrasies but on top of this we shared a tendency to a greater or lesser extent to ‘run with our legs’ rather than ‘on them’. In other words, the leading leg was coming right out in front of the rest of the body, such that the centre of mass then had to be ‘heaved’ over the top of it, rather than the legs being more underneath and behind the head/torso to allow propulsion forwards with a great deal less effort.

Having seen all this we then went back outside and Malcolm invited us to have a go at running in our usual way to get a sense of the unnecessary habits that he’d (in a very kind and helpful way) pointed out to us. This gave us a great opportunity to gain a better appreciation of what we were actually doing, by matching it up with what we’d seen. Knowing what it is that we’re doing that we don’t want to do is the first step in the process of change.

We then went on to the next stage which was introducing, one-by-one, some very simple thoughts together with a few basic instructions. Most approaches in life encourage us to try and work out what we need to do and we often end up trying to micromanage ourselves. The Alexander Technique is different and recognises that we work as a whole system. We’re much more complex than a machine, so we can’t possibly consciously decide what we need to do with each ‘bit of our body’ to carry out an action. Through the Alexander Technique we learn to use our conscious thinking to prevent or reduce unhelpful habits that are interfering with our natural movement coordination, poise and balance, as well as to create the best conditions we can for ourselves – that way or inherent neuromuscular processes can take care of what needs to happen to carry out any action. As Alexander himself put it, ‘If you stop doing the wrong thing, the right thing does itself’.

So, armed with a few simple thoughts, I began to trot off across the field and was amazed at the experience of how effortless it was. I had been making a lot of totally unproductive effort in trying to run and I now knew how to let this go. After a short while I heard Malcolm call out ‘Great, that’s it, you can stop now’ but I just kept on going – I was actually enjoying it!